School field trips on the Chesapeake Bay usually focus on science, conservation and history, with the occasional oyster haul and some memorable tumbles through dark wetland muck.

But 16 Baltimore students who journeyed to Smith Island in May were invited to bond with the Chesapeake in a different way: through the lens of a camera.

The National Geographic Photo Camp was a four-day field experience designed to help youth explore and express the world as they see it - in this case, a setting much different from their own. Smith Island is the last inhabited offshore island in Maryland. Both its lifestyle and its shoreline are eroding.

Participants in photo camp included 12 middle school students from the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. Four high school students originally from Iraq and Nepal accompanied the group as team leaders.

Their stay on Smith Island included housing at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation education center, an excursion to the remnants of Holland Island and many hours of slow, studied time on a water-wrapped island not much larger than a single city block.

Four days and thousands of images later, this shrinking fragment of land had become a universe of endless wonders.

"Being on this island with a camera has changed me," middle schooler Julia Bainum wrote in her photo camp journal. "I notice the beauty more. When you don't have a camera, you just try to have fun. You don't notice things. When you have a camera though, you notice the beautiful things. Now, every time I go somewhere new, I will notice the beauty that I didn't see before."

National Geographic contracted VisionWorkshops to organize the Smith Island photo camp. VisionWorkshops is an Annapolis-based organization that conducts photography camps for youth across the globe.

"When you put a camera in the hands of young people, it gives them a voice to describe their world," said director Kirsten Elstner. "Instead of observing someone else's story, it becomes your own."

A team of professional photographers staffs each camp to teach the art of photography. They challenge the students to observe their surroundings closely and use the camera in powerful ways.

The photography camps focus on cross-cultural experiences that expose students to people of different nationalities and sometimes introduce them to a radically different lifestyle in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.

"We've worked with Arab and American youth, as well as youth from a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds." Elstner said. "The camera is a perfect tool for this type of goal because so many kids find photography to be a fascinating medium, and it allows them to create something together."

Smith Island is certainly a stark cultural contrast to the world of most urban teenagers. Residents travel by boat, foot and bike. There are no cars. Watermen struggle to make a living, and many have left for the mainland. Many houses are dark.

Roughly 56 people live in the village of Tylerton, where much of the photo camp took place. Water laps at their doorsteps - a grim reminder that the island is disappearing, too, along with its people.

The remaining residents, though, are relaxed and friendly. They offer ready greetings to those who wander the island's fringes and explore its narrow lanes.

The girls were fascinated by the contrasts to Baltimore, including the watery horizon and enormous expanse of sky. "The sunrise was amazing," said 12-year-old Anastasia Jeffries. "You can't see those kinds of things when you are surrounded by tall buildings and pavement."

"Here is a silent place, and there are no words to describe how beautiful it is," 18-year-old Tila Neupane observed in her photo camp journal. "At my home it is very crowded and lots of cars and roads, lots of noise and people walking on the street. Some people there are nice, but some aren't… at home I stay with my friends in my home. But in the island I want to know about the people and community."

Photography assignments deepened the experience. The girls were sent to record texture and to photograph the effects of light at sunrise and again at dusk. They moved slowly.

In fact, the newcomers from Baltimore crept across Tylerton foot by foot, absorbing details largely unnoticed by residents and tourists alike. They knelt by the grass and lay on the ground to study contrasting shades of pebbles on the road. They explored the nooks and crannies of docks and crab shanties, stopping to chat with watermen and a woman wrapping soft-shelled crabs for market. The girls hovered over weathered paint and marveled at the contours of oyster shells. They lingered at dusk to watch lighting flash in a far-away storm.

Veteran Bay photographer David Harp, a coach at the Smith Island photo camp, said good photography requires good observation. The process gave the girls an intimate experience with the island and produced dramatic images as a result.

"The difference between looking and seeing is pretty profound," Harp said.

On the shore of Holland Island, the girls shared a set of earphones and a sensitive microphone.

"Now walk through the grasses," said coach and multimedia expert Jay Kinghorn. "Hold the mic by the water, and up to the sky."

The sounds were sharper, with more detail. Another layer of the world, otherwise unnoticed, became clear.

"One point of this program is that we go through life making assumptions" Kinghorn said. "We look but don't really see. It's the same with sound."

As the photo camp drew to a close, the girls' best images were combined with voice recordings of the girls reflecting on their experience. The multimedia presentation was played for a full room of island residents on Sunday evening.

Bay Foundation educator Kaity Moss introduces hundreds of people to Smith Island each year. Moss said this trip was unique because the girls mostly experienced the island through art, rather than science. "Usually, it's all about conservation and hands-on experiences. There were less hands-on experiences in this trip, because their hands were full of cameras," Moss said.

Still, there was enough play time to make a lasting impression.

After spending the morning among a cloud of pelicans on Holland Island, the girls held hands and waded into the Bay. Others stepped cautiously into mud at the edge of the marsh.

Watching from the side, Anastasia Jeffries cautioned them, "Don't try it. It's like the black river in Greek mythology. You'll all sink."

They tried it anyway, squealing as they sank to their thighs.

Twelve-year-old Cori Grainger summed up the trip in her camp journal: "I came with just one purpose, but really ended up learning a lot more. I learned about photography, the marsh, refugees, disappearing islands, saving the Bay and the Earth, animal habitats, other people, and I had a really good time. I would never have known these things if I didn't learn them here. I learned how I could make a good and beneficial difference, and that's important to me."

To view images and the multi-media presentation from the Smith Island National Geographic Photo Camp, visit